All in the family
On a table in the Soo Kee Group headquarters in Kaki Bukit sits a pile of intricately carved 99.9 per cent pure yellow gold bars and
Mr Daniel Lim, the group's executive director and chief executive, is proudly showing them off.
He points out the fine detail etched on the precious metal - auspicious images such as dancing phoenixes and swimming koi fish as well as scenes of Singapore's city skyline. The bars were created with the latest laser technologies in goldsmithing.
"With these designs, we add value to regular pure gold bars that usually just sit in the safe. These can be displayed. They make perfect corporate gifts and are great alternatives to a red packet," says the 47-year-old father of three.
We didn't know anything more about gold than the average man on the street and picked up the basics of the trade on the go. We told ourselves that it is our father's dream and we could not fail to make it come true.
MR DANIEL LIM, co-founder of Soo Kee Group, on entering the jewellery business with his siblings even though they knew nothing about the industry
The gold bars are an example of how the group constantly refines its offerings to keep consumers interested. This canny ability to figure out what customers need and the agility to bring the products to market is the main reason Soo Kee is one of the top home-grown jewellers.
Last Tuesday, the company marked a big milestone in its 25-year history. It launched its initial public offering of 112.5 million shares on the Singapore Exchange's Catalist board at 30 cents a share. At the point of listing, its market value was $168 million. The funds raised will go towards expanding the group's retail businesses in Singapore and Malaysia and its new product lines, e-commerce platforms as well as research and development facilities at its new Changi Business Park headquarters, which will be ready by October.
The group has grown from a single 700 sq ft store in Bedok Central to a chain of 62 stores in Singapore and Malaysia. Making up the group are the brands Soo Kee Jewellery, SK Jewellery and Love & Co.
One might assume that Mr Lim, who co-founded the corporation with his older siblings Peter and Mary, was born into the jewellery business.
Far from it. Although the group bears their father Lim Poon Soo's name, the siblings came into the business of selling gold and diamonds cold.
Their late father did leave behind a business, but it was a small sundry goods store in Joo Chiat that stocked everything from canvas school shoes to table runners.
"We started Soo Kee Jewellery from ground zero," says Mr Lim.
His brother Peter, 55, is chairman of and adviser to the group and chief executive of the publicly listed pawnbrokering chain MoneyMax. His sister Mary, 58, is the group's chief operating officer.
When asked whether he and his siblings knew the company would come this far, Mr Daniel Lim says: "When we began to reap results from our first store, we felt we could make a difference to the marketplace and began our expansion plans. Within 10 years, we launched more than 10 stores, and we expanded to Malaysia by the 11th year."
The three siblings have their father's entrepreneurial spirit and grit.
Until his unexpected death from heart failure in 1982 at age 52, the patriarch worked 365 days a year, taking only half a day off on the first and second days of Chinese New Year.
He left behind his wife, two sons, four daughters, the sundry goods business and a two-storey terrace house in Joo Chiat.
The older children Peter and Mary left school to continue their father's small enterprise.
Mr Peter Lim recalls: "The first thought that came to my mind when my father died was that I couldn't let the business fail. Especially when my four younger siblings were still in school."
One of his sisters, Joyce, 51, helms the group's operations in Malaysia; while his other two sisters, Sharon, 49, and Evon, 53, help to run MoneyMax.
All the Lim siblings - including Mr Daniel Lim, the youngest and an electrical engineering graduate from the National University of Singapore - helped out at the store every day after school and during the school holidays.
Peter, Mary and Daniel proved to be the most entrepreneurial of the children. They work well together: Peter is the strategist, Mary takes care of the day-to-day running of the business; while Daniel focuses on sales and marketing.
At the time, to supplement the family's income, a small space was carved out in the shop for a photocopying machine.
"The photocopying business was good. We became skilful at it," says Mr Daniel Lim with a chuckle. "We would put a weight on the 'print' button; we were that efficient."
In the evenings, the big bed the children shared became a space where the photocopied pages were sorted out.
Later, the Lims added a photofinishing corner to their store.
Peter and Daniel - both photography enthusiasts - realised that photo printing shops were charging customers 30 cents a photograph, while they were making just three cents for each photocopied sheet.
By 1986, they became part of Japanese photo imaging giant Fujifilm's network and opened their first standalone photo-developing store, Soo Kee Color, at Bedok Central.
"We learnt how to focus on quality as the Japanese were particular about that," says Mr Daniel Lim. At the height of the business, there were six Soo Kee Color shops. Today, the family still owns two photo-finishing stores, in Plaza Singapura and Clifford Centre.
While running the shop taught the trio about product sourcing and customer service, the Soo Kee Color stores showed them the big picture. "We had our first taste of a multi-store operation, franchising and working with dealers," he says.
By 1991, the siblings were ready to recalibrate their businesses and the gold trade was an obvious choice.
"It was my father's dream to own a goldsmith shop," says Mr Lim. "He used to tell us, especially when he was going through the store's inventory of shoes and clothing, how good it would be if his inventory were gold. Because it will never go out of fashion and it will always be valuable."
But the odds were stacked against the family.
"It was almost mission impossible. The goldsmith enterprises then were passed down from generation to generation; it was not a business that you could start just like that," he says. "And there was no one to teach us how to run a jewellery shop."
That did not stop them.
He says: "The three of us are determined in all that we do. We are always very curious too. We feel energetic when we learn new things.
"My wife often says that when I set my mind on doing something, I am like a bull," adds Mr Lim, who is married to Sharon, a housewife in her 40s.
The fact that their housewife mother Ng Hwee Meng, who is now 79, let them run the show, helped.
"Because we didn't have anyone telling us what to do, we were daring. We told ourselves: We signed up for this and if we fail, we are accountable," he says.
The siblings sold the terrace house their father left behind for about $500,000, pooled their savings and raised about $1 million to start their business venture in 1991.
From day one, the Lims ran it differently from the other 10 traditional goldsmith stores that were already established in the area.
"We had no baggage on how things should be done," he says.
They did everything to get customers. To draw crowds on the opening day, they engaged the already popular Jack Neo as the emcee for the ceremony and had the hottest actors of the time, actors Li Nanxing and Chen Li Ping, grace the event.
To guide potential customers from Bedok interchange to Soo Kee's doorstep, they stuck laminated posters on the floor. Big-ticket prizes such as television sets and refrigerators were also displayed in the store to entice customers to spend and take part in lucky draws.
For market research, they visited famous goldsmith stores in Little India. There, they learnt that besides good products, reasonable prices and an accessible location, good service was crucial to success.
"So we entertained customers whom the other stores were impatient with, such as the demanding ones and those who would view the items many times before they bought," says Mr Lim. "It worked for us because the satisfied customers recommended us to others."
Within 18 months, the business raked back its initial investment capital. By 1995, the second and third Soo Kee Jewellery stores opened in Century Square and Jurong Point Shopping Centre.
Over the years, it has outgrown many of its competitors because it remains nimble in responding to market demands. The company switched its entire yellow gold offering to white gold and diamonds in 1996 in response to what was selling well then.
To target a wider spectrum of the market, SK Jewellery was launched at Toa Payoh HDB Hub in 2003 to house the bulk of the group's relatively affordable baubles, while Soo Kee Jewellery was rebranded as a premium label for diamond jewellery. To tap into the evergreen bridal jewellery market, Love & Co was started in 2007, selling mainly made-to-order engagement rings and wedding bands.
In 2012, the group became one of the first to invest in goldsmithing technologies that allowed it to produce 99.9 per cent pure yellow gold jewellery that was hardy enough to be carved intricately and worn. Pure gold is usually too soft for fine etchings and to be made into jewellery.
The group's revenue rose from $129.9 million in 2012 to $134.5 million last year.
Over this period, net profit grew from $6.9 million to $10.8 million.
Spotting a gap in the market for pawn shops that are open on weekends and offer loans in a friendly environment, the siblings opened MoneyMax in 2008. The company now has 38 outlets in Singapore and 11 in Malaysia.
Mr Sam Chee, a 48-year-old finance director who has known
Mr Lim for 34 years - they were schoolmates in Anglican High School - describes his friend as "hardworking".
"I've always admired how although Daniel and his siblings were new to a jewellery market with established players when they started Soo Kee, they managed to carve a position for themselves."
Today, the siblings remain close.
Daniel, Peter and Mary live in homes within 500m of one another in the east. Every weekend, along with the rest of the extended family, they meet for meals cooked by their mother, who lives with Peter.
They try not to talk about work to have some work-life balance.
Mr Daniel Lim spends his free time travelling, swimming and cycling with his wife and three sons - aged 16, 14 and nine - and indulging in his photography hobby.
To sum up the way he and his siblings run their enterprises, he says: "We do drastic things that others do not understand, like switching from a photo-developing business to a jewellery one.
"For us, it's not just about making money. We thrive on change. Every day, we're on stand-by for opportunities. The only constant in our businesses is change. Consumer demands and markets change all the time, so we're always sensitive to what surrounds us."